A Galileo of the mind

24th March 2006 at 00:00
Howard Gardner's theories have revolutionised the way we think about intelligence. To some he is a heretic; for Tim Brighouse, he is the future

The Development and Education of the Mind: the selected works of Howard Gardner By Howard Gardner Routledge pound;18.99

Every so often you encounter a book that excites you so much you can't stop talking about it. You urge others to read it and are tempted to buy multiple copies to make sure they do. Howard Gardner's selection of his own works is one of those books.

Of course it's rare that such books appeal to everyone, because there's always a personal reason for feeling as you do about the book. So let me start with a confession and explain why I approached this title with an eager anticipation which was more than justified. Most teachers (and I am proud to include myself in that category) have a battle going on in their minds between two advocates of profoundly different theories. Both proponents are psychologists (who, along with philosophers, rather than scientists or politicians, have most influenced teachers' thinking).

In the blue corner crouches Cyril Burt; in the red stands Howard Gardner; the one has cast such a cloud on our thinking that its malign influence has stretched long beyond his grave, while the other has only a tenuous hold on what we say and do. You would have thought our doubts would have rid us of Burt's influence when it was revealed that his research on theories of intelligence, which he began in the 1930s, was based on the unlikely claim that he had studied more than 50 sets of identical twins separated at birth and brought up in different environments.

It is perhaps surprising that such a claimed evidence base didn't raise an eyebrow at the time. But Burt's conclusion fitted our unquestioning beliefs about intelligence as hereditary. His work provided a justification for the 11-plus to sort the grammar school wheat from the secondary modern chaff.

Even now, the education bill shows that our government doesn't have the courage to abolish selection in the few areas where it remains, preferring to collude with its extension through specialist schools.

Perhaps we shouldn't be too judgmental, for even where we did finally get rid of selection by the false god of the IQ and went comprehensive, Burt's ideas have stuck to our innermost beliefs. Why else would we talk blithely of "bright" and "dull" children and arrange A, B, C and D streams for them to be taught in? Why do almost three-quarters of secondary schools subject their pupils within days of entry at 11 to cognitive aptitude tests (CATs)? IQ tests by a different name, CATs are widely used as predictors of what pupils will attain at key stage 3 and GCSE as well as a guide to placing them in "upper" and "lower" bands.

I was first forcibly introduced to a different way of looking at learning when Maureen O'Connor, then education editor of the Guardian and an Oxfordshire parent, walked into my office in 1983 and handed me Frames of Mind by Howard Gardner. "You'd better read this," she said. "It has implications for what we do in schools and might make things better." Not aimed at an education audience, the book contained just a few pages relevant to those of us working in or with schools; it was here that Gardner first advanced his now famous theory of multiple intelligence (MI).

He argued initially for seven types of intelligence: linguistic; logicalmathematical; spatial; musical; bodilykinaesthetic; interpersonal; and intrapersonal. (He later added an eighth category - naturalist intelligence - and acknowledges that there may be more.) His theory was based on years of working with children, including autistic savants, as well as studying brain-damaged adults. He concluded that people could exhibit deep understanding of certain fields of cognitive activity while performing at a beginner's level in others. He was profoundly influenced by Piaget and Bruner, with whom he started his career as an apprentice.

Indeed, the first part of the book is an account of the multi-disciplinary influences - psychological, psychiatric, neurological and scientific - on his thinking. Practitioners from these fields attack Gardner's theories from time to time. Why?

In a way, he's the Galileo or Copernicus of the mind; he threatens the existing cognitive order. If he's right, the way we still organise schools and the curriculum (with a heavy reliance on pupils' correct recall against time of a fairly arbitrary body of knowledge) may be part of the problem rather than the solution.

Although this is still the main way of organising learning - and society still accepts and delights in television programmes such as Mastermind and The Weakest Link as measures of intelligence - it's clear that over the past 20 years Gardner's influence on our educational system has gradually increased. The work on thinking skills; the interest in learning styles and in deploying a variety of pedagogical approaches to teaching the same topic; the resurgent interest in creativity: all are witness to the strength and appeal of Gardner's ideas. Even the present preoccupation with "personalisation" has its roots in what Gardner was writing about the implications of MI theory for classroom practice as recently as 1999.

He acknowledges, too, the usefulness for teachers of Daniel Goleman's theory of emotional intelligence, although it doesn't satisfy his strict criteria for the definition of an intelligence.

It's in the classroom that Gardner's theories have most appeal, for they confirm what teachers know from their everyday experience: that students think and learn in many different ways. They also provide a conceptual framework for organising and reflecting on curriculum, assessment and pedagogical practices.

Just when you think the book couldn't be more interesting, it is. After two rich sections on arts education and disciplinary understanding, the last three selected essays in the final part are entitled "How education changes", "An education for the future: the foundation of science and values", and "The ethical responsibilities of professionals". Each will be fresh even to those familiar with Gardner's books, and each speaks with originality, wisdom and insight to all of us engaged in education.

The book is not intended to be read as a whole. In 250 pages there are 23 self-standing articles or extracts, any one of which is a rich feast. I cannot recommend it strongly enough. I wish those at the helm of the Department for Education and Skills, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and Ofsted, as well as all our ministers of education, would read even one extract. It might just persuade them that the Earth really does revolve around the Sun.

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser to the London Schools Challenge. Visit www.rm.com to download his pamphlet on school improvement, Jigsaw of Success, or order a hard copy

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